Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a buccaneer in the swashbuckly olden days? The excitement! The adventure! The chances of getting keelhauled. The scurvy…the days at sea under a baking sun, never knowing if you’ll make the next port before your worm-infested bread runs out…um…
Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play a buccaneer in the swashbuckly olden days? The excitement! The adventure! And all from the comfort of your computer chair. Thankfully, the folks at Ascaron Entertainment have brought forth Port Royale, giving us a chance to step into the shoes of an ambitious young ship’s captain as he strives to make a name for himself in the New World. This is a title that takes some work to get into, but once the learning curve is overcome, there’s quite a fun game of trade, pirates and privateering to be played.
Port Royale takes place around the early 1600s, as many European countries are racing to stake their claim to the riches and lands of the Americas. From southern North America, through the Caribbean and into northern South America, European interests have planted several colonies and established a great deal of trade between the colonies and the Old World. With all of these fat merchant vessels running about the seas, so far from the powerful navies and Crowns of Europe, piracy abounds.
To begin a game, players choose a time period and swear allegiance to a European flag. The four represented European countries (Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands) control different amounts of the map, depending on the staring year of the game. Choosing allegiance to a country dominating the New World makes for an easier game, since more of the colonies and other ships will be of the same nationality. After choosing nationality, players choose a ship, a few traits (such as experience bonus from trade or experience bonus from battle), and a home colony. With these decisions made, game play begins.
Port Royale takes place in real time, although it can be paused at any time to give orders, make trades, or interact with a particular colony. Initially, players will wish to load their starting ship with a few cannons, enough crew to keep everything moving, and then begin to make some money through trade. There are around 20 or so trade goods available for transport, ranging from foodstuffs to spices to amenities only available from the Old World. Each of the colonies are good at producing certain goods (other than the Old World exclusive goods, of course), but they cannot efficiently produce everything. It’s up to the player to figure out which colonies have surpluses (which can be bought cheaply), and which colonies are in need of those goods (which can be sold at a profit). It boils down to “buy low, sell high”, but it’s quite a bit more entertaining that just that. The world map shows all of the colonies currently discovered by the player, and indicates a few of the goods needed by each of the colonies. Since the players aren’t the only traders sailing the seas, the needs and supplies are constantly in flux as other merchants are peddling their wares. I have many times loaded up on a particular good that was needed a few colonies over, only to find that another merchant beat me to the market, and drove the prices and demand down before I arrived.
In addition to setting up trade routes, players can also do their part to build up the colonies themselves. There are several building options available in each colony. Storehouses allow for temporary holding of goods that are not currently in demand, as well as establishing a clerk who will buy and sell goods automatically at that colony, according to limits placed by the player. After a while, players may wish to take a more direct hand in the generation of goods, so factories and production houses can be built. Of course, these production facilities cost money and resources to run, so the player must keep a steady supply of raw materials, gold, and workers on hand to keep things running smoothly. In addition to storehouses and factories, other buildings can be created for the purposes of improving the town. Hospitals and such can be constructed to help gain favor with the locals, which is important for achieving the final goal, reaching the rank of Governor of one of the colonies.
Players begin the game with a single “fleet”, consisting of one ship. This is certainly not enough to maintain a trade empire, so more ships need to be bought or captured. As the player’s experience increases, either through trade or combat, they gain the ability to hire captains and establish additional fleets. These fleets can then be ordered to run trade routes or patrols automatically, allowing the player to concentrate on the trickier trade runs and missions.
If trade isn’t exciting enough, players may choose to stock up on cannons and extra crew and take on the more dangerous job of privateer or pirate. Whether armed with a Letter of Marque or flying the Jolly Roger, players can attack just about anyone they choose, as long as they are prepared for the consequences. Ship combat is a fairly simple affair, again in real-time with the ability to pause and issue orders. Once a ship is disabled (and as long as it’s still floating), players may choose to either capture or loot the vessel. Each choice has its rewards and consequences. Capturing a vessel means a new ship, but the country of the previous owner will be a bit more cranky than if you just took everything from the hold.
As players attack pirates and other countries (or their own), favor with those countries will alter. Privateering with a Letter of Marque against a particular country will gain big favor from the player’s own King, but will most certainly sour relations with the opposing country. Each colony and country has a favor rating, which is altered by the player’s actions. Bringing in much-needed goods, supporting the local military, and building hospitals will increase a particular colony’s favor, while buying out the last of their food or running raids on their market will cause a bit of a problem. Relations with different nations is much the same; attacking ships flying a particular nation’s flag will bring about a bit of enmity, while attacking enemy vessels or pirates will do much to gain respect. Favor is vital for a great deal in Port Royale. Colonies will not let players build unless they are in good graces, and if there is enough bad favor, they won’t let players’ ships into dock. After enough negative favor is incurred with a particular country, players will find themselves hunted by ships loyal to the enemy flags, which can be quite troublesome.
Although for many players it will be enough to establish themselves as a Pirate King or a Merchant Prince, the game does have a storyline and final goal, garnering enough favor with the Crown to be named Governor of a colony. As the character’s experience grows, they may undertake the main storyline missions and work their way toward the final rank. Reaching the rank of Governor ends the game, but a conscious final choice must be made before that rank is awarded, leaving players free to sail around the Caribbean as long as they wish without suddenly finding the game completed.
The graphics in Port Royale are quite good, with very detailed 2D animation for everything. The buildings are crisp and clear and a pleasure to look at. The sound is also top-notch, and the music appropriately swashbucklingly flavored. Unfortunately, the interface isn’t as smooth and the visuals and sound. Controlling the trade and privateering empire takes quite a bit of work, made a little more difficult by the slightly clunky control system. I was never able to figure out exactly what was making things difficult, but the controls just never quite became second nature.
There is also a fairly steep learning curve to the game. Although an introductory tutorial is in place, it will take quite a bit longer to figure out the nuances of the game. I don’t mind putting in the extra work for a game, but some players may be a bit put off if they expected to just jump in and begin trading with the best of ‘em. Once the learning curve is overcome, however, there is quite an addictive game to play. I did come across a few bugs in the game, one in particular (a crash associated with the autosave feature) was quite annoying. Disabling the autosave solved most of my technical problems, but resulted in a bit of frustration when I occasionally needed to reload to a half-hour old save point.
Overall, Port Royale is a strong addition to the trading/privateer genre. A steep learning curve and slightly clunky interface may discourage some, but with a bit of patience players will soon find themselves joyously sailing the New World.
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